He Preserved 200-Year-Old Legacy of Citizen Activism

He Preserved 200-Year-Old Legacy of Citizen Activism

Thomas Y. “Jay” Johnson, Jr. fought for volunteer firefighters.

When asked about his proudest moment, Johnson answers without hesitation: “Every call is my proudest moment.”

When asked about his proudest moment, Johnson answers without hesitation: “Every call is my proudest moment.” Steven Halperson

— Thomas Y. “Jay” Young Johnson Jr. hails from a long line of proud volunteer firefighters. His father and uncles were volunteer firefighters in Alexandria, where Jay was born, raised and educated. His early memories include doing his homework at the fire station. Now, 35 years after his father’s generation, he reflects on a distinguished history as president of the Alexandria Volunteer Fire Department.

In addition to his family, a major influence in Johnson’s life was Mrs. Rigby, a teacher at T.C. Williams High School who arranged a part-time job for him at the Department of the Navy. He worked this job after school and in the summers, and parlayed it into a life-long career. He is now at the Pentagon as the deputy director of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs, Human Resources and Enterprise Support.

Johnson has noticed a trend for the volunteer fire department to provide more emergency medical services than in the past. With the aging of the population, his volunteers increasingly are called upon to respond to heart attacks, administer CPR, and provide transportation to hospitals. Children with respiratory and other medical problems are also triggering more calls. His staff is kept busier than ever providing support to the police for vehicle accidents, shootings, stabbings and hazardous materials situations.

A great source of pride at Station 202 on East Windsor Avenue is Special Support 202. Talking about this “ever ready” emergency vehicle puts a gleam in Johnson’s eye. He is responsible for the vehicle’s upkeep and maintenance, assuring that it is kept ready to provide medical rehabilitation and scene safety support at any moment. Special Support 202 contains a large water supply used to keep victims hydrated. The vehicle is equipped with choppers powerful enough to cut through large branches felled in storms, clearing the way for emergency vehicles with larger wheel bases to make their way onto the scene. Special Support 202 goes on police calls to light up crime scenes. It is also on call for hostage situations and use at sobriety check points.

OPERATING EMERGENCY VEHICLES and providing lifesaving services require ongoing training and recertification. As president of the Alexandria Volunteer Fire Department Johnson is responsible for the administrative work that ensures that he and his staff are trained in the latest safety and rescue methods. He oversees his volunteer firefighters’ training in CPR, emergency vehicle operations and risk management. He also oversees their physicals. Once trained, the volunteers need to be recertified on a regular basis. Thus, his on-call duty hours are filled with a mix of “run calls” and reviewing paperwork to see that his staff remains qualified for the rigors of their mission.

Johnson has served on the Alexandria Traffic and Parking Board for 22 years, and as its chairman for the past six years. For a man who knows the streets of Alexandria, particularly those of Del Ray, like the back of his hand, this position is a perfect fit. He knows all the emergency routes and supplies inside information to help the board decide on measures aimed at making Alexandria a safer place to live. He is the voice of reason when residents request “traffic calming” measures for the streets on which they live.

As the board’s chairman he also oversees the regulation of the taxicab industry in Alexandria. With his board, he handles complaints about drivers, while appreciating that the board’s decisions affect the livelihood of more than 700 taxicab drivers.

HELPING PEOPLE, particularly through the Alexandria Volunteer Fire Department and Alexandria Police Department, brings Johnson deep and long-lasting fulfillment. He has six notebooks filled with certificates, letters of commendation and awards of recognition to show that his efforts have been appreciated. A sampling reveals that in 2011 he was named Alexandrian of the Year and additionally recognized for his 25 years of tireless efforts as president of the Alexandria Volunteer Fire Department by the daily online newspaper AlexandriaNews.org. He served as grand marshal of the Turkey Trot in 2011. He has been recognized for his efforts with the Special Olympics. He’s been a vital presence at scores of annual Alexandria Waterfront Festivals, art fests, Halloween parades and Del Ray Community Nights. And he’s earned a reputation as an outstanding hotdog chef.

Johnson has also stayed the course during political storms that threatened the existence of the Alexandria Volunteer Fire Department. In 1981 there was move to snuff out the department. Working with then-Mayor Jim Moran, then-City Manager Vola Lawson and then-Councilwoman Patsy Ticer, Johnson won the approval of the City Council to bring back the volunteer department. As president he fully accepted the responsibility for the buck stopping with him and for answering to the city’s mayor and City Council.

Rodger Digilio, who nominated Johnson as a Living Legend, summarized this pivotal period: “When volunteer fire companies were threatened with extinction, Jay labored for years with Alexandria’s administrators to professionalize the volunteers so they could be restored back to frontline service alongside Alexandria’s career firefighters, rescuers, police officers, and sheriff deputies. He preserved a 200-year-old legacy of citizen activism in the best traditions of Thomas Jefferson, resulting in thousands of hours of volunteer time contributed to our community each year.”

Service to the public is Johnson’s abiding mission. When asked about his proudest moment, Johnson answers without hesitation. “Every call is my proudest moment.”

This is one of a series of profiles that will appear this year. For information, to volunteer, become a sponsor or nominate a future Legend, visit www.AlexandriaLegends.com or contact Legends@AlexandriaLegends.com .